Lent Course 2007: Magnificat

Unit Four - Whodunnit?

"He hath showed strength with His arm. He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek".

Having looked at some theoretical ideas in Units One and Two and looked at ourselves in Unit Three, we are now ready to apply some of our thoughts and doubts to more practical matters.

Here are some ideas about criminal justice; it should be:

The first obvious thing to note here is that some of these ideas are in direct conflict with each other; for instance the idea that justice should be predictable but take different circumstances into account obviously presents some problems.

However, before we go any further, let us return to our Grunge Park teenagers. They have been accused  in the Magistrates Court of taking part in a punch-up with the Khans (see Unit Five) and the Magistrates have found them guilty of affray and have asked for reports; here, in summary, is what they get back:


  1. The Court will consider criminal records before social background when deciding on sentences; is this the right  way round? Which is more important? Is this a general answer based on a theory or should it be different for each case?
  2. How do you balance social background and previous convictions? Should Phil get a heavier sentence than Bill because his behaviour seems to come out of a stable background even though Bill has previous convictions?
  3. The court is very limited in what it can do by way of remedial action. It cannot, for instance, recommend a rise in benefits for the families of Joe or Jane, or special educational facilities for Sam.
  4. Should the court sentence Bill to a period away from home on, say, an adventure holiday?
  5. Finally, how just is a system that treats criminal behaviour separately from everything else?

These questions in turn should lead us to think about underlying causes. The first question we need to resolve is whether or not we accept the concept of underlying causes and, if we do (remember Unit One) is this a personal belief, a theory or a paradigm?

If we do not believe in underlying causes then we are likely to discount social reports and concentrate on previous convictions. If, however, we accept some notion of causality, is it sensible for us as a society to go on dealing with the individual and collective pain of thousands of children and their families as if they lived in social isolation?

Having thought about the individual cases and underlying causes, let us now go back to the ideas about justice at the head of this Unit.

Having looked at individual cases and some of their ramifications, let us return to our four prototypes.

So far we have really been examining the positions of the Politician and the Philosopher. We have asked about where the balance has to be struck between dealing with the individual criminal and the underlying causes and we have implicitly accepted the Philosopher's position that society is not possible without justice, and we have also implicitly accepted the Politician's position that any act is a combination of social circumstances and individual will.  However, our Pilgrim and Preacher raise some uncomfortable points which question the whole of what we have discussed so far.

Pilgrim raises the point that people from the same, difficult circumstances behave differently. For all we know, Bill has a younger brother who has reacted so much against his family that he has never committed a crime and is determined to stay that way. Phil's sister has never been in danger of hitting somebody on a Friday night and Joe knows plenty of children worse off than him who are completely law abiding. Yet it has to be admitted that although there are crime free paupers and millionaire criminals, there is a general pattern in rich countries that relates poverty to crime to such an extent that, quite independently of legislation or sentencing, there is an inverse relationship between crime and economic growth. Nonetheless, Pilgrim's point is the most serious objection to the idea that society collectively bears some responsibility for individual crime.

Most uncomfortable of all is Preacher's idea that we should not judge. Perhaps this is moderated by Philosopher's idea that in an imperfect world we have to judge in order to survive but, still, Christians at least ought to give more thought to what Preacher says. We might link the universality of sin with the famous dictum: "Judge not that ye be not judged" (Matthew 7.1). On this basis we might accept civic justice in an imperfect world but what does this mean for Christians as citizens and opinion leaders? Is it appropriate for Christians to call for ever more punitive prison sentences or should they call for ever lighter sentences?

Behind this question there are three more which we should not ignore:

Underlying the whole of this discussion there are two final issues which we need to discuss:

Finally, we need to look at the fundamental nature of the problem. There are essentially two paradigms which have their Christian equivalents; human beings are:

We should note immediately that these two views are not entirely incompatible but they represent the dichotomy in Unit One between Plato and Aristotle and they broadly represent the two views of humanity in the Christian tradition.

The way I like to ask the question is: "Is there a Mozart on every street corner or only one in a million"? Having provisionally accepted that these are two paradigms, we have to ask on what basis we choose the one or the other. Are these fact-based paradigms or simply reflections of our individual prejudices about the human race? When we say that genius is rare, are we basing this statement on the story so far or on a theory of humanity as a whole? Are we, in other words, saying that this paucity of genius is remediable or not?

Taking the idea further, then, are we saying when we talk about the sinful nature of humanity that this is inevitable and that nothing can be done about it other than to put one's faith in God or are we saying that there are constructive approaches to our individual and collective falling short of what God requires of us?